Guests of the audience of tomorrow

Looking back at the China tours of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Beijing 1979: Karajan and the Chief Conductor of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra Beijing
(Photo: Gustav Zimmermann/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

It must have been a devastating performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony that greeted Henry Kissinger during a visit to China in 1971. “At some moments, I wasn’t sure if the orchestra was playing forwards or backwards,” wrote the politician in his memoirs. A lack of experience explains why the Chinese musicians had such difficulties with Beethoven. After all, in the course of the Cultural Revolution, state leader Mao Zedong banned Western music, and classical composers were seen as enemies of the state. Against this backdrop, it is hard to overestimate what a decisive turning point the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first trip to China in 1979 was. Three years after Mao’s death, this was a tentative sign of the country’s cultural opening up. The great composers of classical music had already been rehabilitated, so chief conductor Herbert von Karajan was able to present a cross-section of his core repertoire in three concerts: Beethoven’s Symphonies nos. 4 and 7, a symphony each by Mozart, Brahms and Dvořák, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

However, this rapprochement was not otherwise without incident: even the arrival at Beijing airport seemed like a bad omen when, due to a defect of the gangway, two musicians fell from a height of six metres onto the concrete below and had to be taken to the hospital with broken bones. Also, there was no suitable concert hall in the city, which meant the orchestra had to perform in a sports hall that was not acoustically suitable. The concerts, each with over 4,000 spectators, were a complete success, and the end of each concert was met with tumultuous applause.

Meeting the audience

The fact that the orchestra even tried to conquer such a strange country is, in a sense, anchored in its DNA. Immediately after they were founded in 1882, the Berliner Philharmoniker were among the first orchestras to – literally – meet their audiences, and who took on all the travel hardships of the steam engine era to demonstrate their skills in centres of music both large and small. The first trip to Japan in 1957 was also a pioneering act and initiated a relationship between the Philharmoniker and audience which could be described as “love at first sight”. The fact that the musicians increasingly felt Japan to be second home, is thanks also to Suntory Hall in Tokyo: inaugurated in 1986 and located on Herbert von Karajan Square, it looks like an architectural cousin of the Berlin Philharmonie.

Another attempt to create new friendships in Asia was the first guest performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker in South Korea in 1984, but this initially remained a one-off event. Consequently, during the final Karajan years and throughout the Abbado era, Japan was the sole destination of all Asia tours. The orchestra only returned to China and Korea in 2005 under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle – as part of a spectacular tour that opened up a variety of new horizons for the orchestra. Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo: these were the stops on the tour which was documented in the award-winning movie Trip to Asia.

A new status

Among the findings of this tour was that a concert visit in China was now among the indispensable components of a cultured lifestyle. The new status of classical music in China is due largely to the global career of pianist Lang Lang. Following his example, an army of millions of young pianists have stormed the music schools. At his first press conference in Beijing, Simon Rattle judged this development entirely positively: “Lang Lang is probably just the tip of an iceberg coming towards us, and it can only be a good thing for the development of Western classical music. Every new influence keeps the arts alive.” However, the most impressive audience was waiting for the Berliner Philharmoniker on the Chinese island state of Taiwan. Around 30,000 fans followed the concerts in the capital Taipei at outdoor public screenings. When Rattle and several orchestra members went to greet the crowd afterwards, they were met with choruses of “Simon, Simon!”, and “Welcome to Taiwan!”, illuminated by a sea of lights from mobile phone displays. Even for the Philharmoniker, who are used to cheering audiences, this was a special experience.

Of course, Japan remained a fixture of the Philharmoniker’s Asia tours under Simon Rattle. But they also headed regularly for destinations in China to meet the rapidly growing audiences there. The most visible signs of this development are the architecturally and acoustically excellent concert halls which have been opened in recent years in many major cities. These include the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, inaugurated in 2007, which now provides the city with a venue suitable for international top-league players, and where the Berliner Philharmoniker first performed in 2011.

Even when the orchestra embarked on its last trip to Asia with Simon Rattle as chief conductor last autumn, it was not content with farewell visits to old friends in familiar centres of music. Rather, they headed for two new Chinese destinations – megacities whose names are little known in Europe, but which each have over 10 million inhabitants. On the one hand, the Qintai Concert Hall which opened in 2009 in Wuhan, China’s second-largest inland city, and on the other Guangzhou, where the star architect Zaha Hadid completed a spectacular opera house with a bold silhouette in 2010. Further evidence of the rise of classical music in China was that, for the first time, the Berliner Philharmoniker engaged a Chinese soloist for an Asia tour: the Beijing-born pianist Yuja Wang, who performed Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with breathtaking fervour.

Inclusion of Modernism

When preparing for a tour, the choice of repertoire is at least as important as the selection of soloists. And here, too, a further development can be seen. Like Karajan and Abbado before him, Simon Rattle also presented the great, indispensable standard works of Classical and Romantic music on his Asia tours. Moreover, when Sir Simon toured with the Philharmoniker to the Far East and even to China, too, his repertoire from the start always included a major contemporary work. This courageous concept seems to work: “Especially in Japan, the audience today is no less open to contemporary music than in the West,” said the Philharmoniker’s principal cello and media director, Olaf Maninger, “but in China, too, concertgoers increasingly realise that Modernism is part of classical music”.

In this way, Chinese musical life has evolved with incredible dynamism since the days of the Cultural Revolution. Of course, even today, the fact that there is no unbroken tradition of classical music is still noticeable. A full understanding between musicians and concertgoers, as in other countries, is still evolving. In contrast, the tours to China provide the Berliner Philharmoniker with other, unique experiences: encounters with a young audience that is just embarking on the adventure of classical music with passion, a joy of discovery and fresh ears.

This text is the abridged version of an article by Tobias Möller for the magazine 128. Copies of the issue are available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie shop

Beijing 2005: Press conference with Sir Simon Rattle
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Beijing 2011: The Berliner Philharmoniker in their function as UNICEF ambassadorClaudio Abbado and the Philharmoniker in Osaka
(Photo: Helge Grünewald/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Beijing 2011: meal break
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
Shanghai 2017: Not just travelling as musicians
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
Shanghai 2017: Yuja Wang and Simon Rattle in rehearsal
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
Wuhan 2017: The audience is instructed not to applaud between movements
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)